Why Am I Libertarian?

Sometimes people wonder (if they are aware enough to know and/or grasp anything about libertarianism at all) why libertarians are libertarian. Which I think is kinda funny. Usually the people who ask about it are asking because they just don’t understand why someone would be libertarian. It’s outside the realm of their understanding—and make no mistake, most of the people who ask think they understand the way of the world. Which is what makes it funny. They are (for the most part) used to seeing politics in two parts, conservative and liberal. Even people who claim to be independent usually count themselves one or the other, and the political discourse has been defined in the public arena for so long as little more than conservative versus liberal, the notion that someone would somehow exist outside that paradigm is alien to the thinking of many people. Revealing, of course, they don’t actually understand the way of the world nearly as well as they believe they do.

I was once one of those people. I’m not saying I have figured out the way of the world. I certainly have not. But once upon a time, I was a proud conservative with no idea such a thing as libertarianism existed. Which is not to say I was that far from libertarian ideas. I was reared (yes I said ‘reared’ not ‘raised’; crops are raised; children are reared) around people who supported ideas, or at least talked about them, like limited government and individual liberty. These were, I was taught, conservative ideas.

About the same time I was starting to question things I was taught by my church, I also began questioning things about the political philosophy I had been taught. What does ‘limited government’ really mean? What does the Bill of Rights really say? This was not a process where my core values changed. My core values are (pretty much) as they have been since I was first old enough to have core values. What changed was the way I understood what those core values meant and the way I tried to apply those core values to the way I viewed the world. And that is what lead me to become libertarian.

So what does that mean? I’m glad you asked. (It isn’t safe to ask me a simple question. No, really, it isn’t.)

We need to go back to the original question. Why am I libertarian? I am libertarian because I believe in the dignity of the individual, that all individuals have rights that exist above government (and I’ll talk more about that in a moment), and that infringing on that dignity and those rights is immoral and bad for the individuals and for society as a whole.

Have you ever heard someone (usually this happens in a movie) talk about a person being or thinking he is “above the law”? It means the person thinks he is outside the boundaries of the law. True rights exist above the government. They cannot be given or taken away by governments. Your liberty to practice free speech may be protected by the government, but the government does not give you this right. Your liberty to exercise your right to free speech may be infringed or hindered by the government, but the government cannot take the right away from you. This is what distinguishes a right from a privilege. You do not have a right to vote. You have a privilege to vote.

I believe rights should be held to be sacrosanct and, as Jefferson said, unalienable. I believe this is important not just for the individual, but for society. Yes, I said society. (That’s right, unlike what some people may have told you, libertarians do not believe that people should all live and die in isolation from one another.) When the rights and liberties of individuals (that is individuals, plural) are protected, then the rights and liberties of society are protected.

Why is that important? (If you’re one of those folks who thinks libertarians are anti-community, I’m about to burst your bubble.) It is important because humans are social creatures. We are  individuals entities, and members of the communities in which we live. The protection of rights and liberty is fundamental the health of community. People need to be free to form communities, to work together to get things done, and to determine for themselves what sort of community they will create and inhabit. Also (and this is theological, fair warning), we are called by God to love our neighbors as we love ourselves, and to treat others as we desire to be treated. This means, in my opinion, respecting the rights of others as individuals.

(I know some people try to talk about government run social programs in terms of Jesus’ commandments to feed the poor and help the needy, but I cannot find in the Gospels any place where Jesus said “Have the government take money from someone else to feed the poor and help the needy.” He told individuals to use their own means help the needy and feed the poor. But I’ll talk more about that in another post.)

I am libertarian because I care about people, about individuals and about society. I am libertarian because I think that is the only political philosophy that is compatible with my theology. I am libertarian because I want people to be free from tyranny and oppression in all forms. I am libertarian because I think people ought to be responsible for and distinguished by what they do, not the color of their skin or what sex organs they have. I am a libertarian because I think it is the way of peace and living in harmony with others. I am libertarian because I believe in liberty, the dignity of the individual and the importance of a free society.

Which leads me to the question: If you’re not libertarian, why aren’t you?

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